In August, two journalists in our newsroom teamed up to launch a small project they hoped would humanize a story that had come to resemble a crushing statistical death march: The heroin epidemic.
Assistant Managing Editor Stephanie Loder and medical and health reporter Nicole Leonard had noticed an alarming number of our obituaries contained the stories of South Jersey residents who had died by overdose.
And in an increasing number of those obituaries, families were discussing the addiction that stole their loved one.
After a year of reporting the grim stories of clusters of overdoses, year-end death totals and millions spent on treatment programs, the openness of the families felt somehow different.
Families wanted to share their stories.
So, with International Overdose Awareness Day approaching Aug. 31, Loder and Leonard suggested we offer families an outlet for sharing their stories. The invitation went out online and in our newspaper.
In no time, the responses began filling our inbox. The photographs capture the smiling faces of people sharing moments with family or friends, or posing in front of landmarks.
The photos were happy. The words that accompanied them reflected the pain and loss.
We collected more than 70 of them. Reporter and editor spoke to many of the families, some of whom responded from across the country. Their stories each began differently, but ended the same way.
The photo gallery went online Aug. 31.
Two months later, our online project “Faces of an Epidemic” still attracts reader interest.
Why? It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves, especially in light of the fact we’ve heard from a few readers of our newspaper that they’d prefer to see less heroin coverage on the front page.
It’s likely that for our print readers, the coverage can seem too grim and offer little hope. It certainly doesn’t offer them an opportunity to engage or share.
But online, the project exists as both a reminder and a gathering place for folks to share stories, channel their grief and perhaps help others deal with similar situations.
Examples like the epidemic gallery help us understand the importance of finding the right way to approach storytelling on our various platforms — print, digital, audio (podcasts) and video.
In the case of the Faces of an Epidemic project, our audience has been not just the families and friends who’ve lost a loved one, but also their neighbors and friends, all of whom have seen the devastating effects of addiction.
Starting next week, we’ll return to the project and reopen it to families who want to share their stories and photos of loved ones. This time, in addition to seeking stories about the deceased, we plan to explore how families are dealing with their loss.
If you’d like to be a part of conversation, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us your story.